The United States will donate $100 million to support Tunisia’s democratic transition, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said today, in a move designed to help the government address the country’s precarious finances.
“As Tunisia progresses into the next phase of its historic democratic transition, the United States is working to help accelerate economic growth that benefits all,” she said:
Clinton said that, pending congressional notification and approval, the U.S. money would go directly to debt that Tunisia owes the World Bank and the African Development Bank, freeing Tunis to concentrate on its own priority programs and job creation.
The U.S. cash transfer comes alongside a sovereign loan guarantee now being negotiated between Washington and Tunis that aims to use $30 million from the United States to open up access to several hundred million dollars in new financing from international capital markets.
The Obama administration plans to provide $800 million in economic assistance to Arab states undergoing transitions or implementing democratic reforms.
The administration hopes Tunisia will become a model for democratic transitions across the Arab world and the decision follows the leading Islamist party’s declaration that the country’s new constitution will not be based on Shariah law.
The decision reflected his Ennahda party’s commitment to a modernist interpretation of Islam, said Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali.
“There are two extremes – that of the right and that of the left. There are two Salafisms – the jihadist Salafism and the Salafism of anarchy and chaos,” he said. “We say no to these and we say to our people that our society is characterized by its attachment to moderation and equilibrium.”
Jebali also called for forthcoming elections to be brought forward.
“We think that the next elections should not take place later than the month of June 2013. It would be preferable for them to take place on April 9 (Tunisia’s Martyr’s Day) or at the end of June,” he said.
“We hope that the national constituent assembly expends the necessary effort to accelerate the process of editing the constitution.”
Ennahda is emerging as the vanguard of a relatively moderate form of political Islam that is assuaging the concerns of secular Arab democrats and Western observers that Islamist parties are hijacking the region’s populist revolts for illiberal ends.
But Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, the region’s largest and most influential Islamist group has not undertaken the political and theological revisionism long espoused by Ghannouchi and Ennahda, analysts suggest. A leading Brotherhood official this week admitted that the group historic aspiration to establish a region-wide Islamic republic, or caliphate, remains a “long-term objective.”
“There is no doubt that Hassan al-Banna believed in Islamic unity and not just Arab unity. But with such a vision we must consider reality and what is possible,” said Mahmoud Ghozlan, a member of the Brotherhood’s executive bureau.
“This region is in a period of deep-rooted change,” he told Reuters. “Starting from Tunisia and ending with Syria, the nature of the region and alliances will change.”
But such radical objectives will need to be shelved if the region’s “long-neglected and marginalized Islamist forces” want to gain and retain power, says one analyst. Islamist parties need to deliver jobs, opportunity and maintain recently-won political liberties or face a popular backlash.
“There are those who deride the rise of Islamists, alleging that the Arab Spring is a failure, and that the sky is about to fall over our heads,” writes Joseph A. Kechichian. “While Middle Eastern societies certainly harbor underlying cultural and religious currents that ought not be obfuscated, no Islamist tidal wave is about to sweep the entire region,” he contends:
Rather, and even if democratization is a painfully slow process, what is most likely in the cards is a generational transformation. One that aspires to create wealth for 500 million Arabs by 2025 in a relatively free environment, in societies that value liberty, and that will accommodate everyone, including Islamists.
Islamists in power will need to address economic and political questions fast if they, in turn, are not thrown out of office within a matter of a few years.